Tiny dark shapes buzzed through the air, darting around poles and dipping through hoops.
The pilots gathered Saturday morning near a table at the edge of the course, each with a pair of virtual reality-style goggles strapped over their head. Cameras on the drones beamed back images as the machines maneuvered at speeds of near 50 mph.
Dozens of competitors came to Kennewick’s Columbia Park in hopes of making a name for themselves in one of the nation’s newest sports, drone racing.
FPV Racing Seattle hosted the MultiGP Great Northwest Regional Finals at the park on Friday and Saturday.
Competitors came from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, striving to earn a spot at MultiGP’s national competition in September in Reno, Nev.
MultiGP is the United States’ premier first-person view radio-controlled drone racing league, according to it’s website. The competitors earned their way into Saturday’s event through qualifiers.
The sport is one of the latest to combine computer technology with human reflexes into a package that appeals to a wide audience.
Many of the racers come to the sport through video games, said Ed Greutert, a member of FPV Racing. They find an adrenaline rush in piloting the machines through the set of obstacles. The goggles allow them to see the course from the drone’s point of view. And with machines often costing hundreds of dollars, there can be real consequences to missing a turn or hitting a tree.
Anything I could fly through, I tried it. I broke a lot of stuff.
Daniel Muir, pilot
On top of that, competitors are responsible for assembling and programming their drones.
“The people that are competing today, they spend a lot of time on it,” he said.
Daniel Muir’s interest in the sport started seven months ago after attending GE2, a Seattle-based event where gamers, creators and companies come together for esports and other competition.
The Marysville resident went to watch the drone racing.
“I got hooked,” he said. “Now I’ve got three drones on the table.”
Pilots buy or build a frame, generally made from carbon fibers, then install and program the flight controller and motor. The final step: strapping a camera to it.
Muir was drawn to drone racing through his interest in freestyle flying.
“I was interested in diving buildings, flying through parking garages and doing big loops around big objects,” he said. “Anything I could fly through, I tried it.
“I broke a lot of stuff.”
Muir has a YouTube channel of material he recorded from both his freestyle flights and his competitive flights.
We’ve had some racers that are as young as 8 and as old as 80. It really covers a wide demographic of people.
Ed Greutert, FPV Racing Seattle
During competition, the drone’s camera show it following a string of white plastic mounds laid out on the ground; that’s how competitors stay on course.
The sport attracts a wide cross section, though mostly men, Greutert said.
“We’ve got a lot of parent-son teams out here,” he said. “We’ve had some racers that are as young as 8 and as old as 80. It really covers a wide demographic of people.”
PCS Edventures and Boise-based Thrust-UAV are using drones to help teach children about science, technology, engineering and math. Ryan Byard, with the educational company, was presenting information about their Discover Drones program.
Drones provide a great opportunity to teach children about science, technology, engineering and math. Students can learn how all the electronics components come together, the different flight systems, why the GPS system works the way it does.
“There are a wide variety of applications, which is why we developed this program,” Byard said.
When the drones landed for the last time Saturday, two people were definitely heading to nationals. Others may also qualify depending on their time, Greutert said.
While it’s too early to tell whether the competition will make a return flight to the Tri-Cities, Greutert sounded upbeat.
“This would be tops on my list,” he said. “This is about as good as it gets for holding an event.”